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Thinking (and Breaking) Outside of the Box

Providence Day School often utilizes a variety of innovative and technological means to foster problem-based learning and critical thinking among students.

And lately, it’s been using a simple wooden box.

Inspired by the latest escape room craze, in which willing participants work together to decipher clues to escape a locked room within a certain timeframe, the California-based Breakout EDU company developed a way to bring this enticing model into classrooms.

Wanting to impact teaching at a basic level, making it more problem-based, more interactive and more social, Breakout EDU designed a kit full of nifty devices — locks, invisible-ink pens, black light flashlights and more.

The kit — coupled with a teacher’s imagination — allows countless lessons and scenarios to be crafted in which students must use teamwork, critical thinking and good-old ingenuity to crack the clues and succeed in opening a locked box.

As students go, their natural curiosity demands they find out what’s in the box.

“The box and the locks are pretty much always the same, but everything else changes based on the class, the teacher, the age group and the subject matter,” said Middle School Librarian Corley May, who began implementing Breakout EDU games at PDS last school year.

“I try not to let students know ahead of time what we’re doing, because the surprise is half the fun and really sets the tone for the rest of the experience,” said May. “There’s usually a story that we’re telling, and the students are dropped into the middle of the plot. Beyond that, we use whatever we can think of to tailor the experience to the group.”

May first took Brick Smith’s 7th-grade history class through the breakout challenge shortly after they’d completed a unit on Civil War spies. The students were told they had to “prove their worth as members of Lincoln’s spy network” by getting into the box before the contents self-destructed.

“They had to use skills from the unit, recalling dates and famous historical figures, breaking codes and using bits of trivia that Mr. Smith had taught them,” said May.

Since then, the Breakout EDU game has been utilized a variety of ways — in Middle School history, English, math, strings and World Language classes; in Upper School English, Global Leadership, strings and AP U.S. history and AP psychology classes; in faculty and staff professional development sessions; and during a Middle School Harry Potter-themed celebration.

“It’s a really fun creative exercise, because the sky is the limit in terms of what you can use to build your puzzles and clues,” said May. “We’ve incorporated digital elements, props and even virtual reality.”

And when it comes to revealing to a particular group that they’re doing a breakout scenario, “we’re always finding new ways to stump the students,” May added.

“The teachers had the act put together pretty well — they convinced us we were doing a research paper on classical composers,” said 11th-grader Joe Kerrigan, a student in Sarah Russell’s Strings Ensemble class. “Suffice it to say, none of us were ecstatic about that.”

May even placed a few musical history textbooks around the library room to help sell the illusion for the strings students as they filed in. When a video of Bands director Dr. Michael Hough interrupted the assignment presentation, explaining how the class was really involved in a breakout scenario with a potential prize as the goal, the students were immediately engaged and intrigued.

It was last spring, when Middle School faculty played a Breakout EDU game as part of professional development, that Russell knew she’d found her new bonding tool for her Middle and Upper School classes.

“So much of what we do in ensemble instruction depends on the way the students interact, work and approach the music as a team,” she said. “It is not about who is a stronger player; it is about creating and producing a solidified, blended, unified, characteristic sound.”

“Many of the skills required of a successful ensemble are also necessary when completing a Breakout box, so it was a natural extension of the environment I hope to create in my classroom and in our strings rehearsals,” she added.

For Russell’s strings students, May incorporated clues from the musical literature they were studying. While each class approached the problem-solving aspects differently — e.g., 6th-graders dove in with tremendous energy while Upper Schoolers were more thoughtful and logical — their overall experiences exceeded Russell’s expectations.

“I think the most interesting part was that there wasn’t a right or wrong way to solve the box or approach the clues — the locks could be taken off in any order and it really depends on where the students chose to start,” said Russell. “My philosophy of musical instruction sort of emulates that idea — it’s not as important that we do things in a strict right or wrong way as it is that we agree upon styles, characters, bow strokes, etc.”

The breakout activity benefited the students by bringing them closer together to solve the problems.

“I learned that, as the cheesy phrase goes, ‘teamwork makes the dream work.’ If everyone works together, then almost anything can be accomplished,” said 8th-grader Charlotte Harvey, one of Russell’s students. “We were successful — after a couple of nail biting moments, we were able to unlock each and every lock.”

“It was a fun experience for the class to form some bonds,” said Joe. “(It) was a great opportunity for us to all get to know each other.”

Upper School Assistant Head Cathy Bard utilized the Breakout game at the start of school for her Advanced Algebra I students, who had to decipher a series of logic puzzles in order to open five locks. Bard’s primary goal was for them to learn the value of collaboration and perseverance.

“They worked in small groups to solve the puzzles and more than one group potentially weighed in on the final answer,” said Bard. “The activity totally accomplished the goal that I had. It was helpful for me to see how each student approached the problems and their peers — I knew very few of them on that first day, so the activity allowed me to watch them in action.”

“We all shifted around the room trying to solve all of the problems,” said 7th-grader Christine Schumer. “When we got stuck, we would move to a different problem.”

Deciphering the clues “makes you use all different parts of your mind to figure things out and really helps your brain get going, especially on the first day of school after a long summer,” said 7th-grader Maiden McLoughlin.

The experience not only helped the class bond but also to have a little fun, said Maiden, “even though it was a tad bit difficult.” 

Students find the breakout game a fun alternative to the familiar learning experiences, said May.

“On a deeper level, we’re providing experiential learning with opportunities to really use the information they’ve been digesting,” she said. “We’re also providing opportunities for students to work together, listen to each other and fail together. They don’t always get all of the locks open, and that’s okay.”

May plans to continue building breakout game scenarios for any interested faculty or staff who wish to partner or brainstorm ideas with her. She also has a notebook full of ideas for “games in classes and beyond” garnered at a recent Games for Change Festival in New York, at which attendees learned how games can impact education, healthcare, research, civics and social issues.

“We’re planning to set up a station of games for students and teachers to sample here in the library, with a selection curated to connect to what’s going on in Middle School classes, either directly or indirectly,” said May.

“There is a lot of possibility for virtual reality games and experiences to have a huge impact on our students’ learning, and that’s a topic I’m hoping to explore in greater depth this year,” she said.  

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